Monday, May 24, 1999

Groups grab at tobacco suit windfall

Requests go well beyond Ohio's $10 billion pot

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Groups vying to share the settlement Ohio made with tobacco companies say they need only a small chunk of cash to pursue cancer research, promote healthy lifestyles and persuade people to kick the habit.

        Others want a slice to finance health care for the working poor, technology for universities and prescription drugs for the elderly.

        But “small” in this case can mean millions of dollars. And simple math suggests some of the groups aren't going to get anything close to what they want.

        Indeed, the deluge of proposals before a state task force studying the issue could end up costing more than the $10 billion Ohio is slated to reap during the next quarter century from cigarette makers.

        As the group assembled by Gov. Bob Taft moves closer to recommending how the money should be spent, some of the requests have staggered even the most seasoned observers of state government.

        “We're talking about billions of dollars, and these folks haven't been shy,” said Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, a panel member. “But there is only so much to go around.”

        During his State of the State address earlier this year, Mr. Taft directed the panel to focus on programs that reduce the number of young smokers. Other governors, including Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, have in cluded similar proposals in their plans for the tobacco settlement.

        Mr. Taft also is pushing to use some of the cash to finance school construction. He and other state leaders are under pressure to comply with an Ohio Supreme Court order that struck down the way the state pays for public schools.

        “It's important to listen to all the different groups,” Mr. Taft said last week. “But we're not there yet.”

        Ohio's first check from the settlement — $120 million — isn't expected until next summer. State lawmakers will decide how that money and subsequent annual payments ranging from $323 million to $422 million will be spent.

        Presentations from various groups at the tobacco panel's hearings during the past two months have differed in substance but not style. Most groups want lawmakers to give them the money and figure out how best to spend it.

        Health groups say spending the money on anti-smoking programs is especially important in Ohio, which leads in smoking among males and is third among both genders. Nearly 20,000 people die in Ohio each year from smoking-related illnesses.

        A coalition including the American Cancer Society, American Lung Asso ciation and American Heart Association is asking lawmakers to give them a third of the settlement for an anti-smoking foundation.

        Among other things, the group wants to conduct anti-smoking media campaigns, promote community programs targeted at youths and support stronger enforcement of laws banning the sale of tobacco products to minors.

        “We have proven methods to prevent kids and adults from even starting to smoke, so we don't have to fund treatment for smoking-related illnesses,” said Michelle Chippas, spokeswoman for the Coalition for a Healthier Ohio.

        Others are seeking more money to support their own initiatives.

        For instance, representatives of the Association of County Health Commissioners contend they should oversee programs intended to keep people from smoking and help others to quit.

        “Local health departments have many times been the catalyst to bring together community groups to develop an implement local programs,” the group said in a statement distributed to the tobacco task force.

        Juvenile judges, meanwhile, want $25 million a year for an initiative that would order young offenders to participate in anti-smoking programs.

        “We believe that juvenile courts and judges are particularly well suited to this task,” said Judge Frederick Mong of Hocking County, president of the Ohio Association of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

        While other ideas are promoted as public health improvements, Mr. Finan said, he is skeptical because they could end up requiring the state to support them with general tax revenues, rather than proceeds from the tobacco settlement.

        Proposals fitting into that category include one that would expand Medicaid coverage for low-income parents that have moved off welfare and into jobs.

        “Smoking is more prevalent among lower-income people, and they are the most likely to be uninsured,” said Margaret Hulbert, government relations manager for the United Way and Community Chest in Cincinnati. “Linking low-income people to health care and a medical home provides them an opportunity for the information, encouragement and motivation to decrease or cease using tobacco.”

        Like Ms. Hulbert and her allies, some groups are eyeing the tobacco windfall after failing to win enough support for their programs from the state and federal governments.

        The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) wants $100 million a year set aside to help low-income, elderly Ohioans afford prescription drugs. The AARP also is trying to persuade Congress to expand Medicare coverage to include prescriptions.

        State-supported universities want a cut of the windfall to support research and technology.

        John Clough, director of Cleveland Clinic Foundation, asked the tobacco panel to create a grant program for universities, colleges and medical schools to focus on cancer prevention and treatment. And Carol Cartwright, president of Kent State University, asked for $100 million to invest in technology.

        There's more to come.

        Black legislators will make their case this week for a portion of the windfall to be channeled into anti-smoking programs directed at minorities. A recent report by the U.S. surgeon general determined that smoking among black youths has increased substantially during the 1990s.

        “I'm not in a position to say what our recommendations are going to be,” said Tom Johnson, chairman of the tobacco task force and Mr. Taft's budget director. “But I'm not sure this panel can get involved in every cause that is requesting money.”


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